So is the new As­ton Martin Van­tage bet­ter than a Porsche 911 – or a Mclaren 540C, for that mat­ter? Gay­don boss Andy Palmer wants to know, and we’re sure you do too. Over to Matt Saun­ders

Del­i­cacy is a hard qual­ity to find in a mod­ern sports car – but not im­pos­si­ble. Our win­ner has it

Does the su­per-sports car ac­tu­ally ex­ist? Is it re­ally a thing? Af­ter spend­ing a cou­ple of days driv­ing three new cars brought to­gether un­der that ban­ner, I have my doubts. The su­per­sports car may be a fig­ment of the car in­dus­try’s imag­i­na­tion, I reckon; or a clever bit of profit-gen­er­at­ing sleight of hand, more likely.

Some­times group tests are like this. You gather three new cars to­gether that share a broadly com­mon price point and mis­sion state­ment and you ex­pect to find them sim­i­lar; but driv­ing them back to back at length only makes you more aware of how dif­fer­ent they are. Of how much sep­a­rates them not just in terms of mo­tive char­ac­ter and dy­namic ap­peal, but also how dif­fer­ent are the rea­sons you’d buy them and the ways you’d use them. And so it is when you try to force a Mclaren 540C, a Porsche 911 Car­rera GTS and the new As­ton Martin Van­tage into the same shop­ping bas­ket. They flatly refuse to share.

It may seem odd to sug­gest that one of the most im­por­tant growth niches in the whole per­for­mance car mar­ket may be an imag­ined one; su­per­sports cars have sold rather well for the last decade or so, af­ter all. The seg­ment was fa­mously pi­o­neered by Porsche back in the 1970s, and while it now con­tains cars as dif­fer­ent as the Audi R8, Honda NSX and Nis­san GT-R, it’s still known by many as the ‘911 Turbo’ class be­cause of that car’s en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity.

Weis­sach’s key re­al­i­sa­tion way back when was that there were plenty of cus­tomers who wanted some­thing bet­ter than a 911, to use in pre­cisely the same way as a 911. The thing is, af­ter 43 years of try­ing, many would say that Porsche has failed to make the car it set out to. A Turbo is cer­tainly a faster 911, af­ter all – but has it ever been a demonstrably bet­ter sports car? Now that both four-wheel drive and tur­bocharged torque are widely avail­able through­out the 911 range, the an­swer to that ques­tion seems to me more de­bat­able than ever.

That is, how­ever, just one of the rea­sons I’m us­ing to ex­cuse the fact that you won’t be read­ing about the Porsche 911 Turbo over the next few pages. It also hap­pens to be the case that Porsche GB doesn’t have a Turbo demon­stra­tor at the mo­ment – and, more­over, that As­ton Martin chose in­stead to bench­mark the 911 Car­rera GTS dur­ing the de­vel­op­ment of the new Van­tage. So here we are, in­tro­duc­ing this vi­tal new As­ton to a cou­ple of cars that can be con­sid­ered key ri­vals for it for the next few years – one of which you might even de­scribe as for­ma­tive. Or which, with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, you might not even de­scribe as a key ri­val at all.

In re­cent years, I’ve seen more chas­sis en­gi­neers than I can re­mem­ber sim­ply nod sagely and smile in quiet awe when the GTS comes up in con­ver­sa­tion. Suf­fice it to say, leav­ing the more spe­cialised GT3 con­ve­niently to one side if you’ll per­mit it, I reckon a rear-wheeldrive, man­ual, ju­di­ciously equipped GTS would be the 911 held up as the very best of the cur­rent breed for its driver ap­peal by most of us for­tu­nate enough to have driven 911s fairly widely. And ‘ju­di­ciously equipped’ is what we’ve got here: stan­dard low­ered sports springs, widened rear track, PASM adap­tive dampers, slippy diff, feel­some steel brakes and 20in ‘Turbo S’ wheels – with op­tional four-wheel steer­ing and Porsche Dy­namic Chas­sis Con­trol ac­tive anti-roll bars in­cluded.

Tak­ing the 911 as our ref­er­ence sports car of choice, then, it’s in­ter­est­ing to ob­serve, be­fore we get into the de­tail of their re­spec­tive

driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences, ex­actly how both the Van­tage and the 540C may be con­sid­ered su­pe­rior to it on the spec sheet and parked up at the kerb. Be­cause, for a kick-off, su­per-sports cars have to be su­per, don’t they? And, in their dif­fer­ent ways, both the 540C and the Van­tage cer­tainly seem to be ex­actly that.

They’ve got power and pace cov­ered. The Van­tage of­fers 10% more horse­power than the 911, the 540C 25% more. It won’t sur­prise you to learn which car is the quick­estac­cel­er­at­ing on pa­per. But on al­limpor­tant torque-to-weight ra­tio, it’s ac­tu­ally the As­ton at the top of the pile. Even if you’re con­ser­va­tive with your es­ti­mate of that car’s true un­laden weight (As­ton only quotes ‘min­i­mum dry weight with light­weight op­tions’ in its press ma­te­rial), you’d put the car at north of 300lb ft per tonne, while the Porsche of­fers 280 and the Mclaren 275.

The As­ton Martin is also ‘su­per’de­sir­able, cer­tainly. In a fairly re­served colour and even al­low­ing for ag­gres­sive frontal styling that sel­dom at­tracts com­pli­ments, it’s a dom­i­nant pres­ence in a car park that also con­tains a pow­der blue 540C and a grey 911. Peo­ple no­tice

the Van­tage first and are drawn to it. That it’s the brand-new model in­tro­duc­tion here clearly plays a part in that vis­i­bil­ity ad­van­tage, but it was telling to me that one par­tic­u­lar passer-by who took an in­ter­est in all three cars didn’t bat an eye­lid when told the Van­tage’s £121,000 ask­ing price. “It looks like the money,” he said. Good point.

I reckon he would have con­ceded, if pushed, that the Mclaren does too, but the 540C has the mi­dengined per­for­mance pu­rity and ex­otic car­bon­fi­bre con­struc­tion as back-up when it comes to jus­ti­fy­ing its price. Both of those things are pretty ‘su­per’. It’s in­ter­est­ing that the Mclaren’s car­bon­fi­bre tub doesn’t achieve a greater weight ad­van­tage for the car. It is only 4kg lighter than the 911 ac­cord­ing to man­u­fac­turer’s claims. That’s cer­tainly not a re­li­able in­di­ca­tor of how the Mclaren’s driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence will com­pare to the Porsche’s, though – onto which we’ll come later.

But let’s start with the As­ton’s bur­bling V8 be­cause, in ad­di­tion to the car’s visual pres­ence, it adds another layer of wow fac­tor. The Van­tage sounds su­perb: naugh­tier, more men­ac­ing and even more char­ac­ter­ful than the 911 (which isn’t short on sonic ap­peal). On the road, I’d say the word ‘stonk­ing’ nicely cov­ers it. And so the Van­tage has hotrod charm to spare, if that weren’t a bit of an in­sult to the fine job Gay­don has done on the car’s sus­pen­sion, and yet its engine is still ul­ti­mately re­spon­si­ble for the bet­ter part of the car’s driver ap­peal. Open­ing it up, where you can, is an ad­dic­tive treat.

The As­ton’s V8 is also not at all like – how can I put this – an an­gry swarm of gi­ant pneumatic robot wasps from the future; not at any speed. It’s now been more than five years since I first heard Mclaren’s Ri­car­dobuilt turbo V8 engine, and I still can’t quite put my fin­ger on ex­actly what it sounds like. Gi­ant robot wasps may be the clos­est I’ve got, for any­one who’s never heard one. It sounds un­like any other V8 you’ll ever hear, and lacks any of the woofling warmth of the As­ton’s engine. But then the com­par­i­son’s not en­tirely fair, since the Van­tage’s V8 has masses of torque and the rich­ness you’d ex­pect of a front-en­gined sport­ing GT – which, in a theme we’ll be de­vel­op­ing, is what the Van­tage re­ally is. The Mclaren’s V8 is shorter on rich­ness, but then it’s got over­square cylin­ders, a slightly peaky and dra­matic power de­liv­ery and revs to the far side of 8000rpm. All of which you’d ex­pect of the engine in a mid-en­gined supercar, which is what the Mclaren re­ally is. Both V8s are, in short, very well suited to the cars they’re to be found in and nei­ther’s much like the other.

And where, ex­actly, does the Porsche’s flat six come up short, then? Well, it makes for pace that’s pre­dictably much less knuckle whiten­ingly rapid than the Mclaren’s above 5000rpm, and it doesn’t have the mid-range wal­lop of the As­ton’s AMG V8. And yet,

some­how, it holds its own. It has bet­ter re­sponse and a more bal­anced and lin­ear power de­liv­ery than ei­ther of the V8s. It hauls with gusto and revs out very nicely in­deed; lat­terly to well be­yond 7000rpm, by which time the As­ton’s V8 has called time. It is avail­able hooked up to a lovely man­ual gear­box. And it still sounds great: spiky, busy, smooth and very spe­cial.

On han­dling, the cars are just as dif­fer­ent from each other as you might ex­pect of a rel­a­tively compact rear-en­gined sports car, a mid-en­gined supercar and a front-en­gined sport­ing GT that hap­pen to be com­pet­ing for the same cus­tomers’ money.

The Mclaren feels the light­est and grips the hard­est; it turns the most keenly and is the most ex­cit­ing when the road and con­di­tions are just so. And just get­ting into the car whets your ap­petite for what’s com­ing. Though the seats are comfy, they’re set low and in­board, be­ing trick­ier to get into than ei­ther the Porsche’s or the As­ton’s. Once you’re inside, you feel as if your hips are as close as they could get to dead cen­tre within the car’s foot­print, short of re­quir­ing a switch to a cen­tral driv­ing po­si­tion. The con­trols are ideally placed, with a steer­ing wheel suf­fi­ciently ver­ti­cal in its ori­en­ta­tion and closely set to your chest as to feel like it’s come straight off a rac­ing pro­to­type. And, lordy, that steer­ing’s good: heavy but so feel­some. Just mag­i­cal. God bless Wok­ing for stick­ing with hy­draulic as­sis­tance.

Had we con­ducted this com­par­i­son test at least partly on a cir­cuit or in ex­clu­sively dry con­di­tions, I dare say it would have been hard to deny the 540C the out­right win that the in­cred­i­ble im­me­di­acy of its steer­ing re­sponses, the sheer swiv­el­ling agility of its chas­sis and the nearper­fect f lat­ness of its body con­trol ar­guably merit. But this test was car­ried out on roads – only very fleet­ingly wide and idyl­lic ones, but much more of­ten nar­row, cam­bered, bumpy, busy, pot­holed and wet ones (sound fa­mil­iar?), where the car’s firmly sprung chas­sis some­times strug­gles for an as­sured hold on the road, and where its sus­pen­sion oc­ca­sion­ally runs short of the travel nec­es­sary to deal well with larger, sharper in­tru­sions.

There’s a chink of light here, in other words, for the more softly sprung, nar­rower, more bump­com­pli­ant and B-road-ready 911 and Van­tage to shove their pert noses through. And the amaz­ing thing to me is that – in re­spect of road driv­ing

Lordy, the 540C’s steer­ing is good: heavy but so feel­some. Just mag­i­cal

only, re­mem­ber – both force their way through it. The Porsche and As­ton Martin are cars I would en­joy driv­ing more, at nor­mal road speeds and on a daily ba­sis, than the Mclaren, though for dif­fer­ent rea­sons.

While the 540C is fan­tas­tic at its best, it wouldn’t en­rich every­day miles as much as ei­ther of its op­po­nents. And if it were mine, I wouldn’t use it as much as ei­ther of the oth­ers; not for any journey in­volv­ing a par­tic­u­larly nar­row B-road, a multi-storey car park, a mo­tor­way toll booth or an on-street park­ing bay on a busy street. Don’t get me wrong, I love su­per­cars; I just wouldn’t want to drive one ev­ery day.

The Van­tage, on the other hand, does ‘en­rich­ment’ very well in­deed. But you can tell it’s blessed with a Only 4kg sep­a­rates the un­laden weight of the 540C and 911 Car­rera GTS, de­spite the for­mer’s light­weight car­bon­fi­bre con­struc­tion.

chas­sis tuned by peo­ple who con­sider it a much more se­ri­ous driver’s car than its pre­de­ces­sor be­cause it’s not sat­is­fied to play the com­pli­ant, laid-back GT all of the time. It’ll do that just fine, with Sport mode di­alled into the sus­pen­sion and pow­er­train. But, to me, the car is at its best in Sport+, when the close­ness and deft­ness of its ride con­trol and the finely me­tered ac­cu­racy and tac­til­ity of its steer­ing are both highly im­pres­sive.

The Van­tage has cor­ner­ing balance and poise too, but it feels a bit heavy and it likes a smooth sur­face. It’s sel­dom more sat­is­fy­ing than when flow­ing through fast curves, where you can feel the rear wheels push­ing the mass of the front end around like the out­board mo­tor on a power­boat. That it doesn’t deal with tighter, bumpier roads as well is to do with sev­eral fac­tors: a rear axle with a lot of lat­eral stiff­ness di­alled into it, which gets a bit ex­cited when the bumps af­fect only one side of the car; a body that’s still wide and isn’t bril­liantly easy to see out of, even though this is the small­est As­ton; and a chas­sis that works its con­tact patches hard, but doesn’t com­mu­ni­cate an eb­bing grip level nearly as clearly as it might.

The Van­tage’s ac­tive rear dif­fer­en­tial can make the car throw some truly wild shapes at low speeds, away from T-junc­tions and around empty round­abouts if you’re feel­ing like a hooli­gan, and its an­tics can be highly amus­ing. But they’re no sub­sti­tute for true han­dling del­i­cacy.

Del­i­cacy is a hard qual­ity to find in a mod­ern sports car, but not im­pos­si­ble. It de­pends on com­pro­mise: just the right amount of power, grip, weight, size, body con­trol and han­dling re­sponse, but not a shred too much of any one of them. Our win­ner cer­tainly has it.

For every­day, real-world, real road use, the 911 Car­rera GTS is the sweet spot – the de­fin­i­tive ar­ti­cle – and all the sports car any­one with any sense would ever want. It can be fully ab­sorb­ing at road speeds in more ways than you can count on your fin­gers, and with­out ever be­ing brusque or im­pos­ing to drive. Its han­dling can be play­ful and ad­justable in places where you sim­ply wouldn’t risk ei­ther of its op­po­nents. Its engine shows you that lin­ear­ity, range and re­sponse mat­ter so much more than a heroic amount of out­right punch you can al­most never de­ploy. And its sus­pen­sion al­lows the body to move around just a bit – ver­ti­cally over bumps, and rolling ever so slightly through cor­ners – but only enough to make its han­dling feel all the bet­ter for it, be­cause you can gauge per­fectly how much left the chas­sis has to give.

The GTS feels right-sized for the road too. Even af­ter so many decades and so many re­vi­sions and growth spurts, you just don’t worry about its width like you do a bit in the As­ton,

and more in the Mclaren. You can see out of it, carry stuff in it, would use it for trips that you wouldn’t the oth­ers, and would be happy to leave it in places you wouldn’t the oth­ers. A 911 GTS will also never trap you at a mo­tor­way toll booth at which you’ve pulled up suf­fi­ciently close to try to reach the ‘re­ceipt’ but­ton with­out open­ing the door, only to find that you can’t reach, af­ter all – and, thanks to your own stupid am­bi­tion, you can’t open the door ei­ther. Cer­tain su­per­cars do that, ob­vi­ously. Nowa­days, cer­tain ‘su­per-sports cars’ do it too.

Not all of them, mind. And that’s just one of many rea­sons why, over a wet cou­ple of days on the road in the British spring­time, the new As­ton Martin Van­tage had the prac­ti­cal­ity, char­ac­ter, rich­ness and dy­namism to see off the chal­lenge of a Mclaren 540C. The leap the As­ton has taken is quite plainly about so much more than an AMG engine and an ag­gres­sive new look, and we’ll in­ves­ti­gate it in greater de­tail in weeks to come.

What the Van­tage hasn’t done, on this ev­i­dence at least, is change the fool­ish­ness of looking be­yond one of the great­est ver­sions of what con­tin­ues to be one of the great­est sports cars in the world: the 911 Car­rera GTS. Maybe it isn’t ‘su­per’ like a Turbo – but a wise man would set­tle for ‘bet­ter’, wouldn’t he?

540C’s dy­namic ap­peal could have put it ahead of the pack… if not for roads like this

The Porsche 911’s flat six makes 444bhp

540C is 25% more pow­er­ful than 911 ri­val

As­ton’s AMG V8 has 503bhp and 505lb ft

One par­tic­u­lar passer-by who took an in­ter­est in all three cars didn’t bat an eye­lid when told the Van­tage’s £121,000 ask­ing price. “It looks like the money,” he said.

That feel­ing when you take a 540C over 5000rpm

Pump, then action – but no need to call ‘shot­gun’

911 is the least fiery but, at road speeds, the place to be

540C’s rac­ing in­tent is clear from its low-slung seat­ing

Au­dio sys­tem can’t beat As­ton’s melodic V8 soundtrack

Is that a swarm of gi­ant pneumatic robot wasps I hear?

The new Van­tage looks and sounds the part, but in­volves the driver ter­rif­i­cally too

De­spite be­ing the heav­i­est car here, the Van­tage has the best torque-to-weight ra­tio of our trio – and the 540C has the worst.

No mat­ter how nar­row the road, how un­for­giv­ing the con­di­tions, the 911 pre­vails

Mclaren has car­bon­fi­bre inside and out

Logo de­tail­ing on As­ton’s seats is op­tional

911 has a debonair two-tone leather cabin

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